- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

HOYLAKE, England — Golf’s oldest major championship hasn’t visited Royal Liverpool since 1967. A quick stroll around the 7,258-yard, par-72 links sufficiently explains the hiatus.

Every layout on the British Open rotation has a distinct personality. It is in this department that this week’s host of the 135th Open is sorely lacking.

Architect Donald Steel, who several years back tweaked the Harry Colt links some 15 miles Southeast of Liverpool, describes Hoylake as “like Carnoustie, in as much as the ground is fairly flat and there’s not much up and down.”

Yeah, it’s like Carnoustie … without the Angus monster’s treacherously defining Barry Burn (see Jean Van de Velde). That’s like saying it’s like Pebble Beach … without the Pacific.

Fact is, there’s simply nothing dramatic about Hoylake. It’s flat enough to double as a landing strip. A desperate dog had best look elsewhere for a tree. The rough is burned up and wispy thanks to Britain’s recent heat wave. Only three holes (Nos. 11, 12 and 13) skirt the somewhat scenic Dee Estuary. And even its once-feared profusion of internal out-of-bounds ground has been rendered more obsolete than OB by modern equipment.

Roberto de Vicenzo’s run to victory in 1967 was defined by what was then a bold final-round 3-wood struck 220 yards over the out-of-bounds ground lining the right side of the par-5, 16th (the 18th this week) en route to a two-putt birdie. That once-daunting yardage could be handled by most of this week’s field with no more than a 4- or 5-iron.

“Everyone has been talking about the out of bounds, but there aren’t a lot of places where it comes into play,” U.S. veteran Jim Furyk said after yesterday’s practice round. “Perhaps on Nos. 3 and 18, but other than that you have to hit a really poor shot to do it.”

Not only has the layout lost its OB teeth, Hoylake’s four reachable par-5s (averaging 544 yards) have prompted some insiders to suggest the world’s best players are likely to put a red-number thrashing on the old girl unless the wind absolutely howls. There isn’t a single other venue on the Open rota which offers players the scoring opportunities of four par-5s.

De Vicenzo won at 10-under in a generation long before metal woods, graphite, titanium or the Titleist Pro V1x. Could this week’s winning total surpass Tiger Woods’ record 19-under at St. Andrews in 2000 and embarrass both the R&A; and the course?

“I don’t think anyone is going to go that low because the greens are nice and firm,” 1989 British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia said yesterday. “But unless it gets really windy, you’re going to see some really good scores out there.”

OK, so Hoylake can’t touch Turnberry or Birkdale when it comes to aesthetics, doesn’t have quirky character like Sandwich and Lytham and doesn’t come close to the brutal challenges presented by Carnoustie and Troon. Perhaps it qualifies as a fitting Open venue due to an illustrious history like St. Andrews and Muirfield, the two rota tracks steeped in stuffy tradition which never fail to identify an well-credentialed winner.

On the one hand, Hoylake does have a nice heap of history in its favor. Men like Hilton (1897), Taylor (1913), Hagen (1924), Jones (1930) and Thomson (1956), epic players who need no further identification, are among Royal Liverpool’s 10 Open champions.

Bobby Jones became the last amateur to win an Open when he collected the claret jug in 1930 as the second leg of his historic Grand Slam. And as the second oldest seaside links in England (dating to 1969), Hoylake was also the sight of the first British Amateur championship (1885) and the inaugural Walker Cup matches.

On the other hand, all the feathers in Hoylake’s historical cap are at least 50 years old. And for every Hagen and Jones it’s produced, there’s a Sandy Herd (1902), Alf Padgham (1936) or Fred Daly (1947).

In fact, it’s a wonder the R&A; didn’t forever strike Hoylake from its rolls when the course allowed a Frenchman to win the British Open (Arnaud Massey in 1907). That’s a concept as anomalous as afternoon tea in Compton.

In spite of the course’s pitfalls, however, the game’s elite players are likely to inject a must-watch dose of drama into this week’s 135th quest for the claret jug. Story lines abound, as the world’s top two players, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, both try to rebound from Winged Foot infamy, and a steadily closing gang of young British players try to win the Isles’ first major since the 1999 British Open (Paul Lawrie).

“I think times are changing,” said English comer Nick Dougherty, a local native with a bevy of course knowledge. “We are on the cusp of a really great decade or more for British golfers. … There’s great players in Luke Donald, David Howell, Paul Casey. They are class. They will contend in the majors, and I don’t think it will be long before we really start taking over. We’ve already nicked the Ryder Cup a few times now to call it our own. Our time is coming, and it could be this year.”

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